Seven years ago, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Midtown Sacramento. I owned six pieces of furniture and all of my clothes and shoes could fit into one of them: a wooden IKEA wardrobe with guitars and fencing sabres piled on top.
I could walk to work in thirteen minutes, bike to the grocery store, and go for weeks without using my car.
My future husband lived a few streets over, in a fancier TWO bedroom apartment. Our courtship involved lots of margaritas and backgammon, plays and quirky coffee shops. River walks, museums and running around the city until 4…
We got married a few years later and found out I was pregnant a month after that… Surprise! With a family on the way, we figured it was high time to become conventional grown-ups. Time to settle down and buy ourselves a house.
And conventional wisdom says you should raise families in suburbs. Bigger houses, better school systems, less crime…
So we packed up our belongings and moved into a suburb roughly half an hour away. We found a big, beautiful house we could’ve never afforded in Sacramento and were incredibly excited about this new chapter of our lives.
But as time wore on, we couldn’t help wondering if we’d made a mistake. Especially after our car was vandalized, eventually stolen, and houses around us were broken into several times (so much for lower crime).
And now, four years later, we know that we did. Our house is lovely, but we’re isolated and bored. We feel it harder every time we visit Sacramento and will be putting our house on the market by the end of the month.
Which raises the question…
Is it better to to raise a family in the city or the suburbs?
I don’t think there’s a right answer.
Or at least, the right answer depends entirely on you.
Who are you and how do you define a good quality of life?
While the suburb I currently live in and Sacramento don’t necessarily represent all cities and suburbs as a whole, I’ve lived in a variety of cities and noticed some common differences. To help define priorities, I’ve come up with five telling questions I think anyone considering the leap should maybe ask themselves first:
1. How do you feel about your car?
When living in Sacramento, I usually walked to work. Instead of fighting traffic, scrambling to find parking or investing in passes, I’d listen to music while getting fresh air.
My monthly gasoline bill was a less than a hundred bucks.
Since I often came home for lunch, I had an hour of free exercise automatically built into my day. So, no need to join a gym or find time to work out.
That may have been an ideal situation, but city people generally live closer to work. Walking or biking are feasible options, unlike for suburbanites, who mostly face long commutes in unpredictable traffic.
Since my husband still works in Downtown Sacramento, moving back means two extra hours in his day. Two more hours to spend with his family, play outside, or just get extra sleep. We both consider that time invaluable, even at the price of higher property rates.
How about you?
2. How do you feel about your stuff?
While having two kids means I’ll never live as streamlined a life as I used to, now the pendulum has swung too far the other way. More space means accumulating more stuff… more stuff than we’ll be able to keep after moving back into a smaller house.
It’s great to have lots of things, but there’s also some downsides. While I used to tidy my apartment within thirty minutes, now I’m endlessly scrubbing a house that’s never completely clean. A bigger house means higher heating and cooling costs, every nook and cranny an ongoing entropy challenge…
They say the things you own start to own you, and I believe that’s true. I wrestle daily with wanting to get outside to DO something while simultaneously not wanting to live like a pig. We have stuff we forget we own and space we barely ever use… that nevertheless needs be cleaned, organized and maintained.
Plus a giant lawn to keep presentable so our neighbors won’t assault us with pitchforks and burning sticks.
Of course, that’s just MY opinion. We have a finite number of waking hours and I’d rather not spend half of them maintaining a bunch of stuff.
But others may feel differently, wanting nothing more than to build a gorgeous domestic palace, a vast receiving house for guests with a lush green lawn and extra bedrooms.
Whether you find this idea appealing or suffocating depends on you.
3. How do you feel about going outside and talking to strangers?
City people spend more random time outside. Everything is closer, often in walking distance, so you tend to get out of the house more when going about your day.
Not that suburbanites don’t get outside, but it tends to be more organized: soccer or swimming practice for the kids, working out at the gym or spending the weekend doing sporty things.
Even restaurants and shops are smaller in the city. You’ll be closer to the next table over, which means you’re more likely to strike up conversations with random people next to you. I’ve had strangers offer to let me try out their bikes in Sacramento within ten minutes of saying “hi.”
It’s not that suburbanites are unfriendly, it’s just more awkward to talk to folks from twenty feet away. Suburban areas are spread out, so everyone has more personal space. You’re less likely to transact with people unless you’re buying something or already know someone well.
Cramped city life, on the other hand, means people are relatively “in your face.” You have to deal with them, for better or worse.
And whether you like that depends on your comfort level. Are you a homebody who would rather keep to themselves, staying indoors to watch TV or read a book? If so, you might just want a bigger, nicer room to read it in.
4. How do you feel about familiarity vs the unexpected?
Not only will more city people talk to you, they’re more unconventional than folks in the ‘burbs.
Or even kinda weird. For example, my family attended a festival run by Sacramento Pirates last week.
And I mean PIRATES. They dress like pirates, talk like pirates, and run around doing pirate-y things (except for, of course, actually marauding ships).
Would that make you uncomfortable?
Personally, I think it’s great. The Sacramento Pirates are people who know what they want. At some point in their lives, they asked themselves what made them happy and decided, “the Hell with what anyone else thinks, I want to be a grownup who runs around acting like a pirate with my friends.”
That takes a lot of guts and I respect it.
The kids had the time of their lives, being incredibly popular amongst pirating folk. The pirates gave them loads of attention and make-believe gems. They even let them hold their parrot and lizard pets.
My kids also collected wheel presents from members of the Sacramento Chapter of Official Mermaids, longtime buddies of the pirates, of course.
My kids carried these gem and shell offerings in little buckets for hours, later hanging out with folks in the Sacramento Beard Society, a bunch of guys who grow unusual facial then run around wearing bowler hats and Victorian vests.
People dress weirder and are weirder in the city, which, depending on your personality, can be either creepy or liberating. Creepy for unsettling your expectations, but liberating because it means YOU can be weirder too. With fewer social penalties.
So, do you like living a conventional life with clear expectations, surrounded by people who behave in familiar ways? Or are you cool with bizarre hair colors, piercings, tattoos, and perspectives outside the comfortable norm?
I’m always surprised by how much culture and social rules can vary across a distance only thirty minutes away.
5. What kind of culture are you into?
Speaking of culture, what is yours? Do you love sports, football players and cheerleaders?
Are you a committed, born-again Christian who loves to socialize with other members of your flock?
Because if you are, suburbia may be the place for you. At least that’s how it is around here, where impressive mega-churches dominate the landscape and folks are gunning to get Donald Trump in charge.
Which is fine (some of my best friends are extremely religious), but it can be isolating for Unitarian Universalists like us. There’s a massive churchgoing element to socialization around these parts and not being born-again Christians, it can be hard to connect.
Some people worry about un-Christian influences facing shaping their kids once they start attending school.
Me? I’m more worried about them coming home insisting the Earth is just 10,000 years old. Or that other kids will shun them if they don’t
On the other hand, if museums and art galleries are more your speed, the city may be the place for you. It’s littered in theaters, concerts, bookstores, and writers’ groups. Not that museums don’t exist in suburbia, churches in the city, but it’s a question of proportion and saturation degree.
In the end, it comes down to your personality and priorities. Do you want a nicer house for your kids or more things to do?
And for me, it comes down to where you feel an emotional connection.
I love Sacramento. I love the people, the vibe, and its one-of-a-kind restaurants and historical spots. I love Corti Brothers, an Italian family-owned market that includes a full-time butcher, a wall of pasta, and 80 year old Scotch locked behind glass.
Our suburb includes lots of great chain stores and restaurants, but for me, nothing with Sacramento’s unique, irreplaceable charm.
I love Old Sac with its 200-year-old underground city, reading Joan Didion’s thoughts about growing up there and picturing Mark Twain on a Riverboat nearby. The underground flashlight Halloween tours offered for when you want to check out 19th century brothels, remains of the Gold Rush or old Pony Express.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Monterey, and San Francisco, but have spent more adult years in Sacramento than anywhere else. Now I’ve spent four years in suburbia feeling like an outsider, like I’m on a vacation that’s gone on too long.
A vacation that needs to end so I can return to Sacramento.
Because it’s home.
Where is your home?
Because in the end, that’s the most important question of all.